Israeli involvement in the assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas operative and weapons smuggler, has not been definitively proven. But aside from circumstantial evidence—half of the suspects used the passports of Israeli residents—Israel is widely assumed to have ordered the hit because it has the most to gain from interrupting weapons smuggling, even temporarily, into Gaza. Should Israel be clearly linked to the killing, however, its relations with Britain, France, and Australia, among the other nations whose passports were forged in the operation, would deteriorate sharply. And the distrust may linger.
The episode seems to fit a recent Israeli pattern of brazen disregard for the long-term consequences of striking out at its enemies. It showed, as columnist David Gardner put it, a “preference for instantly satisfying, executive solutions to complex political and geopolitical problems.”
While Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement, the former foreign minister and current opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, objected to the international backlash to the assassination with a telling remark: “What was disproportionate this time? Was there a disproportionate use of passports?” She clearly meant to mock the double standard Israel believes the rest of the world imposes on it, evidenced by claims that Israel’s offensives in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza last year were marked by a “disproportionate” use of force. But Livni’s comment merely served to remind everyone of those counterproductive campaigns, both of which reaped a bitter harvest of international condemnation.
Israel’s initial campaign against Hezbollah in South Lebanon enjoyed almost universal support. But when Israel needlessly escalated the conflict to involve all of Lebanon, near-universal sympathy turned to opprobrium overnight. Similarly, by breaking a cease-fire more or less in place in Gaza, the Olmert government ensured the rapid breakdown of relations with its most important regional ally, Turkey, whose politicians predictably responded by playing to the outraged feelings of their constituents. Israel’s once-solid political and military alliance with Turkey is now badly weakened.
The Dubai assassination threatens to undermine Israel’s relations with other allies in the West—all for the sake of a short-term tactical win against Hamas. While great powers may be able to endure long periods of “splendid isolation,” a small regional power such as Israel cannot afford to alienate the few friends it has. When it does alienate them, the benefit should be worth the cost.
It’s true that international criticism of Israel is often selective and unfair, and indicative of a double standard. For example, Turkey’s complaints about Gaza stand in sharp contrast to the Erdogan government’s chummy embrace of Sudan’s repressive leaders. But Turkey’s indulgence of Sudan is driven largely by its economic interests. That may not be fair, but it is the political landscape in which Israel has to operate. Israel cannot prevent Turkey from forging closer relations with Iran and Sudan, but it can avoid alienating one of its most important allies with reckless and shortsighted provocations.
There is no question that some Israeli military operations have been justified. But lately, successive Israeli governments seem to act with impunity, and they are shocked when the rest of the world reacts with condemnation. Part of this is a function of what Leon Hadar has identified as the “moral hazard” created by the expectation of unconditional U.S. backing. Just as banks that believe their losses will be covered by the government are prone to engage in far riskier investments than they would otherwise, allies that expect Washington to provide diplomatic and political cover for their actions are likely to become more reckless in pursuit of their goals. By routinely supporting the most controversial Israeli actions, the U.S. has encouraged the worst instincts of the most aggressive elements of Israel’s government.
One thing has become increasingly clear in recent years: The Israeli government too often believes that it needn’t follow the same rules it expects others to observe. In the long run, that is not a sustainable posture for a superpower. For a small nation with more than its share of enemies, it is even more perilous.